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24 February 2017

Does unity mean conformity?

Jesus described marriage as "a man leaving his father and mother, being joined to his wife and the two becoming one", perhaps the best expression of unity most will ever experience. 

But I suspect no one will equate this to conformity. Unsurprisingly most biblical references to 'conformity' are negative, often warning against surrendering to worldly norms. In perhaps the only positive reference, Apostle Paul in Romans 8 talked about us being "predestined to be conformed to the image of His son Jesus". Later, Romans 12:4, talks about the Church being "one body but many parts with different functions. So in Christ we who are many form one body, and each belongs to all the others". We can safely conclude that unity is about different parts coming together to carry out different functions towards the same goal, in the same way a body functions. It's in unity that the full picture of the body of Christ is revealed through us the Church. It's obligatory. God designed it that way through Jesus. At its best unity is motivated by love, nurtured in genuinerelationships and gives the freedom to participate. Conformity on the other hand is the act of matching attitudes, beliefs and behaviors to group norms. At its worst it's a powerful force that can take the form of overt social pressure or subtler unconscious influence.

Unity, like charity, begins at home in the local church, before it can go interchurch. The struggle starts within the local church where there may be people of different races, cultures, classes or professions. Often the preferred solution is to accommodate them as separate entities rather than take on the challenge of integration and unity. Could that mean that our church frameworks are somewhat built around conformity? Are we requiring those who wish to join us to conform to specific norms? From experience I would conclude yes, for both questions.

In the mid-90s, soon after our small congregation moved to Anfield in Liverpool, we encountered a group of young people that roamed the streets causing havoc and concern to residents.Invariably they ended up on our church steps. We began praying for their salvation. One evening, half-way through our coveted praise and prayer meeting, they walked in to join us. They quickly got into the groove, clapping and dancing. Soon they were jumping excitedly on our lovely seats in praise. We had dared to give them space that night. It was a step too far for some who had earlier been praying for their salvation, but now promptly walked out. But God did something in the hearts of those young people that night. They became regular members of our congregation, not toning down to be like us, but challenging us to accept them as they were. It changed us as a church family and I think we became the better for it.

An Anglican church in the north of the city opened its doors to Tamil Christians over a period, and found that they took off their shoes before entering the place of worship as an act of reverence to God. Months on, people from other nationalities, including British people, had joined them in this symbolic act of worship. The whole churchbecame stronger because people were given the space to be different. "Here there is no Gentile or Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave or free, but Christ is all, and is in all." Whether at local or interchurch levels, unity will lead to change, which is why many are afraid to fully embrace it. Where change is resisted conformity rules. Both unity and conformity have a cost. With unity both the cost and the successes are shared by all who commit to it, while with conformity one side pays the most while the other takes all the credit.

So where does conformity fit into the equation? According to Paul, the conforming is not something we strive to achieve; it's God's spiritual act of yoking us to His son Jesus. Conforming at any other level contributes very little to real unity, but rather only temporarily enslaves.

Dr Tani Omideyi, senior pastor of Liverpool-based Love and Joy Ministries (Int.), ecumenical canon at Liverpool Cathedral and chair of board of the Evangelical Alliance.

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